Monday 10 December 2018

Axing of measly Gaeltacht grant was final straw for McGuinness

Mary Lou McDonald, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness arrive at Leinster House for talks with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in 2007. Photo: PA
Mary Lou McDonald, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness arrive at Leinster House for talks with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in 2007. Photo: PA
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

The resignation of Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister has plunged politics in the North into chaos - and caused a major headache for the British and Irish governments.

In his resignation letter yesterday, Mr McGuinness said he had enough. He could no longer tolerate the "deep-seated arrogance" of DUP leader Arlene Foster. With Sinn Féin refusing to nominate a successor, an election is now inevitable.

Having served as deputy first minister for 10 years, the real surprise is that Mr McGuinness found it easier to work with Ian 'never, never, never' Paisley than Mrs Foster, whose tenure in office has been notable for a decided dearth of diplomacy.

In his letter, Mr McGuinness blamed the cash-for-ash scandal, and Mrs Foster's refusal to step aside while it was investigated, for effectively collapsing the government.

Set up by Mrs Foster in 2012 when she was enterprise minister, the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme offered business owners who installed renewable heating systems a subsidy. However, it latterly transpired that users of the scheme were being paid more in subsidies than the cost of the fuel, with one farmer allegedly due to receive a £1m windfall over the next 20 years for heating an empty shed.

With similar abuses of the scheme apparently widespread, it has been estimated that the final cost for taxpayers will be £490m (€563m), a gargantuan sum for which Mrs Foster has denied bearing any responsibility.

Early yesterday, the DUP leader effectively dared Mr McGuinness to resign, saying she would prefer to see elections rather than accede to Sinn Féin requests that she step aside during any inquiry.

"If he is playing a game of chicken, if Sinn Féin is playing a game of chicken, and they think we are going to blink in relation to me stepping aside, they are wrong - I won't be stepping aside. And if there is an election, there is an election," she said.

Mrs Foster's strident language will be familiar to politicians in the Republic, with Enda Kenny infamously getting a bloody nose from her after he attempted to set up a North-South forum for Brexit.

Declining the invitation, she publicly described the Taoiseach's idea as "a grandstanding exercise" and said she had "better things to do than be a lone voice among remoaners".

Shortly afterwards, in her first speech as DUP leader, the Brexiteer had more harsh words for Mr Kenny. "[Irish Government] representatives are sent out around the world to talk down our economy and to attempt to poach our investors," she said, a claim which was strenuously denied.

While burning bridges with the Irish Government was a mere hobby, Mrs Foster seemed to view antagonising Sinn Féin as a core function of her role in office.

Last year, she complained that St Patrick's Day had become too "gaelicised" because the "use of tricolours and things like that really turn unionists off from the different parades".

Strangely, she was silent on whether Orange Order parades, in which the Union Jack is ubiquitous, had become too anglicised for nationalists to enjoy.

In October, Mrs Foster caused further consternation when she announced that the DUP intended to block the introduction of same-sex marriage for five years - despite a majority of MLAs voting in favour of the measure in 2015.

However, it was the DUP's miserly slashing of a £50,000 grant, used by nationalist students in the North to attend the Donegal Gaeltacht, that was the real nail in the coffin of the power-sharing arrangement. Announced in late December, when tensions caused by the cash-for-ash scandal were already threatening to boil over, the measure was met with fury by Sinn Féin representatives. They viewed it as a provocation too far - particularly when loyalist marching bands recently received funding of £200,000.

Speaking on January 1, Sinn Féin MEP Matt Carthy ominously warned that the party had "not signed up for the denial of Irish language rights" while the party's national chairman, Declan Kearney, said it was "not acceptable for the DUP to continue to oppose parity of esteem for the Irish language and Irish identity".

With Mr McGuinness already under fire from some in the nationalist community for not taking a stronger stance in relation to the cash-for-ash fiasco, the petty cutting of Gaeltacht grants was a slight that could not go unanswered.

So, while Mr McGuinness may today claim that it was the £490m cost of a botched fuel scheme that precipitated his resignation, the truth is that it was more than likely a mere £50,000 that prompted him to walk.

Of course, this means that the political situation in the North is even worse than first appears, with the two main parties so hostile to each other that compromise cannot be reached on even the most trivial of issues.

With the recriminations in the North now beginning in earnest, it remains to be seen whether the forthcoming election, due to be held in late February or early March, will change the balance of power.

With the size of the Assembly set to be reduced from 108 to 90, the likelihood is that both parties will lose seats but be returned in, proportionately, the same numbers.

Ultimately, the only certainty is the election, which will coincide with Theresa May triggering Article 50 and starting formal Brexit negotiations with the EU, is going to cause a major headache for the British and Irish governments.

Irish Independent

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